A Pack of Their Own :: A. Nora Long on 'The Wolves'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 4, 2019

Acclaimed Boston theater director A. Nora Long tells EDGE that it's a "gift" to be working on the Lyric Stage Company's production of Sarah DeLappe's play "The Wolves," about a soccer team comprised of young women still in adolescence.

The upcoming production, slated to run at the Lyric from Jan. 11 - Feb. 3, is an exciting intersection of talents. Long's career has included a number of plays at the Lyric (where, for eight seasons, she served as associate artistic director), including last season's sensational rendition of "Virginia Woof's Orlando." DeLappe, for her part, made waves with this, her first play, when it became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 - a full on goal, one might say, with her first shot.

EDGE had the pleasure of catching up with Long recently and hearing her thoughts about the production (which is all-female both on stage and in terms of the design team), and how her next project or two ties in.

EDGE: You've directed a number of plays for the Lyric in the past, including "Mr. Burns," "Murder for Two," and last season's striking production of "Orlando." How did you come to direct this production?

A. Nora Long: I was formerly on the staff of the theater as the associate artistic director, and we were meeting with Samuel French, who is one of the licensors for the play. We had dinner, and I had a great conversation with our contact there, and a couple of weeks later he sent me the play and said, "I think you would really like this play, and I think you would really like to direct this play." I'm a bit of a huge soccer fan, so I suspect that came up over dinner — that was one of the contributing factors.

EDGE: "The Wolves" is the first play by Sarah DeLappe, and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Coming on board as the director is the Lyric Stage Company production, what strikes you as remarkable about this play?

A. Nora Long: This is a once-in-a-generation kind of play; I think if the subject matter doesn't sideline it, this will be a new American classic. Upon reading it, immediately the characters, the structure, the dramatic storytelling are just extraordinarily crafted. It's pretty rare to be able to work on a play like this. The fact that it's her first play - I think it's just extraordinarily exciting for what's next for her. The caliber of the writing and the craftsmanship of this play — it's the "Death of A Salesman" of this generation, I think. It's that remarkable.

EDGE: When you make reference to the subject matter possibly "sidelining" this play, are you talking about the fact that it's about teenage girls? Or it's about soccer? Or it's about female athletes?

A. Nora Long: Yeah — I think it being about teenage girls, it runs the risk of being sidelined as being a "niche" play. I think we still sometimes have a hard time seeing ourselves in non-traditional leads of plays. I think this is a play where, because its about a demographic that doesn't get humanized very much in popular media, that that could just be the thing to talk about: "It's about girls, and they do things!" I think that she uses the language of young contemporary women, and she uses the language of today in a powerful and active way.

I'm reminded of one of Elizabeth Bishop's letters to Robert Lowell, where she's talking about how she was called one of the best female poets. She said something like, "I'd rather be one of thirty of the best poets, rather than one of the four best female poets, even if the other three are pretty good."


We don't say "male poet" or "male athlete" for that matter, because we have already culturally gendered those words. So, even though women's soccer is far from a niche demographic in this country, we will qualify the players as female. While there is certainly some empowerment and validation to be found there, it is also an example of gate-keeping.

It's very rare to get an all-female production and the design team is all women; that's never happened for me in my entire career. And getting to work on a play of this caliber is pretty rare, as well. It's a pretty amazing gift.

EDGE: One striking thing about "Wolves" is that the characters aren't given names, but rather referred to by their team numbers. What's the playwright going for with that? How are you approaching it?

A. Nora Long: Later in the play we do hear two of their names, Alex and Megan. But the choice to have [them known by] their numbers instead of their names is twofold. One, she really wanted this play to be about a team and a team of athletes. The physical demands of the play are not insignificant; they are pretty challenging. Also, I think her concern — sort of what I was talking about before, with the marginalization by virtue of the subject matter — is if we heard their names as, you know, Kristin and Katie, we might be tempted to assess the play through a very different lens. By only knowing them by their numbers on the team we're sort of forced to evaluate them, at least initially, by their value to the team — their value as players.

EDGE: So there's an interesting intersection there that you can pick apart and put together in different ways because these are young women and they are also athletes playing a team sport.

A. Nora Long: Exactly, and so much about how we tend to talk about women is about their bodies, aesthetically — how do they look? And who are they in relation to the men in their lives? In this play, we see these women on their turf, literally. We're on the pitch before their game, and we're seeing them demonstrate extraordinary athletic ability, and we are seeing them in relation to each other.

I think there are very few demographics that we collectively love to hate and belittle quite like teenage girls. We don't like the way they talk; we don't like the way they dress; we hold them responsible for the behavior of teenage boys. They have to work harder for less opportunity. And yet, they are language innovators; they are the ones to push language forward. They'll go to college in greater numbers. They are literally the face of the next generation of change and growth in our culture. But yet, it's not a nice thing to say to somebody, to [compare them to teenage girls]. No one really takes that well.

EDGE: I never thought about that, but you're right. People do speak of teenage girls in a way that's denigrating. "You sound like a bunch of teenage girls!" That's used as a slur, isn't it?

A. Nora Long: Right. And immediately we have ideas that they're shallow, they're vain, they're vapid, they're backstabbing. It's particularly remarkable that we see them as a team, working together. She's written dynamic characters; these are young women at the precipice of adulthood and forging their new identities out of a relatively sheltered, privileged life. When they are confronted with some of the more difficult challenges of adulthood, it's not always clean and pretty. But I think by showing these women as dynamic human beings that Sarah DeLappe is doing what great drama always does, allowing us to connect with strangers, in a room of strangers.

EDGE: As you mentioned a moment ago, this is an all-female production. Would you say there is a particular artistic alchemy that can take place in all-female productions that might not occur if there's a lot of male energy involved?

A. Nora Long: Well, it's one of the things the playwright asked for. It's not a requirement, but she suggested that if you can do it, it's helpful. What's extraordinary is, in professional spaces, there aren't a lot of all-female spaces, particularly in the theater world, so part of the alchemy that's happening is that gratitude that we all have to be in the room. I think that everyone who is working on this project really wanted to work on this project. And while I've worked with most of the design team before, I've only worked with one of the actors before. There's something about the kind of joy and team spirit that the cast list beings into the room that's just completely infectious to everyone else.

EDGE: You'll also be directing a new play that's coming up, Michael Walker's "bare stage." It's about two actresses, and they are also dealing with questions of marginalization and questions of objectification and how the male-dominated world of theater tends to treat them and categorize them. You must see some thematic connection between these two plays.

A. Nora Long: I think I tend to always be driven to work that offers a kind of alternative perception to contemporary forms, or that focuses on stories of marginalized populations. I think that is part of the lens that I bring to my work generally, and I think what Michael is interested in exploring, and part of what drew me to that play, is both questions about when artistic freedom sort of looks a lot like exploitation, and how actors who have seemingly little agency navigate the power dynamics of theater to do their work as artists.

The play that I'm doing after "bare stage" is a production of "The Roommate" in Maine. That play is a sort of nice bookend to "The Wolves" because it's a play about women in their fifties — which, similarly, is a demographic that we don't see [depicted] very much, and certainly don't see as themselves, but rather in relation to the men in their lives. When you're getting pitched or pitching stories to direct, it never feels like there's a kind of kismet of pieces that have a thematic through-line [but this season is different in that way].

EDGE: And it's interesting that there was just recently a production of "The Roommate" at the Lyric — so for the Lyric, it's "The Wolves" that's doing the bookending! Did you have any hand in that production as well?

A. Nora Long: I advocated for the Lyric to do the play, but I didn't work on the production itself. I wasn't, no; I left my full-time position at the Lyric in the spring in order to do this: Pursue my creative work.

"The Wolves" plays at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston Jan. 11 - Feb. 3. Tickets and more information at https://www.lyricstage.com/productions/the-wolves/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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